Movie Notes: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

February 10, 2009

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

4 stars = 4 stars

Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Christopher Lloyd
Directed by Milos Forman

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is set in an insane asylum in which reside a definitive “cast of characters,” each vivid, colorful, and memorable. Into the mix is thrown R. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) who’s trying to avoid a prison sentence by faking insanity. In his initial conversation with the head doctor, it’s quite obvious Jack isn’t nuts – he’s a rabble rouser, a quintessential troublemaker: an instigator.

The asylum is run in an oppressive, constrained manner, and the figurehead of the draconian rules and regulations is Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a disciplinary mother figure to the asylum denizens. She’s of the “speak softly and carry a big stick” school, firmly making requests of the inmates like a stern school marm, as if the best way to treat these immature grown men is to consider them naughty children in need of retroactive mothering. She’s a combination of Martha Stewart and Mr. Spock, and certain to rub horns with the rebel McMurphy.

Part of the film’s message is the claustrophobic asylum atmosphere could drive any one nuts. If placed in a depressing enough environment, would a sane person lose their grip on reality? The film suggests yes. So why are the mentally ill incarcerated in such a depressing environments? How about bright colors, natural settings, and positive reinforcement?

So McMurphy writes a new prescription. He insists that his new found friends get out and live life, seeing no benefit to blindly obeying the asylum’s stifling rules and routines. The fishing boat scene is a great example of how the film embraces and celebrates chaos, confusion, and imagination, and pushes them all forward as if to say: “See? Isn’t this so much better?” This field trip is a fun point in the film but at the same time bittersweet, for it can only be a temporary escape. They’ll eventually return to the asylum where certain punishment awaits.

The theme of freedom as therapy surely came from the sixties, when the concept of youthful rebellion against a stale, conservative society were seriously proposed as an answer to a lot of the world’s problems. But knowing the mood of the times, one can see how R. McMurphy’s rabble-rousing rebellion could be wildly embraced and win five Academy Awards.

Today, I didn’t find this theme that resonant. There’s an inherent assumption that the system of Nurse Ratched is corrupt. However, one can clearly see, with enough distance, that her system works and keeps the hospital in one piece. Yes, it’s unfair, but can be argued is necessary since the patients are unable to function on their own.

I also read the original book by Ken Kesey as a teenager. It’s written from the point of view of Chief, the imposing American Indian, and is much more hallucinogenic and sexual – again reflecting the tumultuous sixties.

But what does resonate are some skilled performances, namely Nicholson. Here he plays the “crazy Jack” that would be utilized in The Shining, Batman, and As Good As It Gets. While Nicholson also plays introverted characters (Chinatown and About Schmidt), he’s very wild here, as the crazy, wild-haired R. McMurphy, squirting people with water, pretending to be lobotomized, teaching Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) how to play basketball, and scoring with loose, New Jersey-esque chicks.

Then there’s the insurmountable water fountain. Early in the film, R. McMurphy tells his crazy new-found friends that he’ll lift a solid stone bathroom water fixture with his bare hands, hurl it through the institution window, and lead them all to freedom. Nobody takes him seriously (which says a lot about the insanity of his plan – that the mentally ill think it’s nuts), but he tries to lift the water fountain anyway. He strains to lift the 2001-esque monolith, bulging neck veins and all. Reluctantly he surrenders, muttering, “I tried, didn’t I? At least I did that.”

This terse, matter-of-fact statement sums up the heart of the One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which believes it’s better to try something than to remain passive, believing you can’t. That sentiment doesn’t sound so crazy to me.

IMDB: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Wikipedia: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Rotten Tomatoes: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest 98%